Minhocão

Drawing of the minhocão by Lance Bradshaw.

A Brazilian depiction of the folkloric minhocão by an unknown artist.

Category Giant serpent
Proposed scientific names
Other names Miñocao, sierpe
Country reported Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Uruguay
First reported 1847
Prominent investigators • Auguste de Saint Hilaire
• Fritz Müller
Bernard Heuvelmans
Karl Shuker

The minhocão (Portuguese: "giant earthworm"[1]) was a cryptid reported from southern Brazil, and possibly also Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.[1] It was described as a subterranean serpentine creature with hard black scales and horns, which causes much destruction by its tunneling.[2][3] There have been no recorded sightings since the 19th Century, and some consider it extinct (if it existed),[1] though Chad Arment suggests that there may be another reason for the sudden stop to sightings.[4] The name is also used, especially in modern times, to refer to giant water snakes.

Description

The minhocão is regarded as "huge" or "gigantic," and wormlike or serpentine in shape, although its exact dimensions are difficult to gauge based on the sightings. According to some accounts, is reputed to grow up to 150' in length and 15' in width, but witnesses who claimed to have seen the animal - instead of guessing its length based on its furrows - gave different dimensions, including 3' thick but "not very long," and either 82' long or "no longer than a lasso" (i.e. no longer than 80', according to Heuvelmans). The width of the minhocão's furrows are obviously a more reliable gauge of the animal's width than its length, and these tunnels range from 3' to 10' wide.[2]

Various accounts collected by Fritz Müller give it black skin as hard as pine tree bark, a piglike snout, thick bony armoured scales or plates, and movable horns on its head. The presence of some sort of armour was borne out by a trackway showing traces of scales. According to one source, it was a "true fish" with "fins", but had a "very round form".[4] No reports mentioned legs, although one eyewitness described it "lumbering" away.[2] According to Auguste de Saint Hilaire, writing prior to Müller's collection of eyewitness accounts:

...the monster in question absolutely resembles these worms [earthworms], with this difference, that it has a visible mouth; they also add, that it is black, short, and of enormous size; that it does not rise to the surface of the water, but that it causes animals to disappear by seizing them by the belly.[5]

It is most conspicuous for its tunnelling behaviour, atlhough it is also said to be amphibious, living in water, and in at least one account wallowing in mud. Heuvelmans describes it "overturning trees like blades of grass, shifting the courses of rivers, and turning dry land into fathomless marshes" through its tunnelling.[2] It is mostly active after rainy weather, and supposedly overturns boats and eats livestock.[1] Auguste de Saint Hilaire gave several accounts of cattle, horses, and other livestock being pulled beneath the water when fording the Rio dos Piloes and Lakes Padre Aranda and Feia in Goyaz, Brazil: the minhocão was blamed for pulling these animals under.[5] It is also reputed to roar so loudly that it can be heard from several leagues away.[4] Modern folklore often features it as a more snake-like creature, "gliding" beneath the earth and through the water.

Sightings

Undated

When Emil Odebrecht was surveying the uplands of Santa Catarina in Brazil, his progress was impeded on a swampy plain by a series of winding trenches along the course of a stream. They were too wide to step across, but not too wide that he could not jump them.[2]

In the Brazilian state of Parana, a woman going to draw water one morning found the pool destroyed and saw an animal "as a big as a house" crawling away on the ground. She called her neighbours, who arrived too late to see the animal but saw its track, which showed it had passed over a rock and disappeared into deep water.[2]

Also in Parana, a young man saw a large pine tree fall over with no visible cause. Hurrying to the tree, he saw the earth moving and glimpsed a huge black wormlike animal either 82' or "no longer than a lasso" (about 80', according to Heuvelmans), which had two moving horns on its head, lying close to its body. It was wallowing in mud.[2]

1849

Whilst travelling near Termas del Arapey in Paraguay, Lebino José dos Santos heard that a minhocão had caught itself in a narrow cleft of rock and died. Its skin was as thick as pine tree bark, and it had scales like an armadillo.[1]

One evening in 1849 on the Rio dos Papagaios in Parana, after a long period of rains, João de Deos heard what sounded like rain whilst the sky was clear and sunny. The next morning he discovered that a large piece of land on the other side of a hillock had been completely undermined: deep furrows led to a stony plateau where heaps of reddish-white clay showed the route the animal had taken to a stream which ran into the Papagaios. Three years later, in 1852, Lebino José dos Santos sought out the place and found the tracks still there. He concluded they had been made by two animals which were some 6' to 10' thick.[2]

circa 1860's

Biologist Fritz Müller (1821 - 1897) collected a number of minhocão sightings which he regarded as reliable.

In the late 1860's, some 6 miles from the neighbourhood of Lage, Francisco de Amaral Varella and Friedrich Kelling[1] observed a gigantic animal, some 3' thick, but not very long, with a pig-like snout; Amaral was unable to tell if the animal had feet. Amaral called his neighbours, but when they arrived the beast "lumbered" off clumsily, leaving a trail of deep furrows about 3' wide in its wake, until it disappeared into the ground.[2]

A few weeks later a similar trench, possibly made by the same animal, was found nearly 4 miles away, on the opposite side of Lage. A party of locals followed the track, which led under the roots of a large pine tree before becoming lost in swampy ground.[2]

1863

In 1863 a "giant snake" or "sierpe" (serpent) settled in a place called La Cuchilla near Concordia in Nicaragua. A mound of earth appeared at the foot of a hill for no apparent reason, and a trusting peasant planted some fruit trees on it, but the ground collapse, laying bare a huge rock. Trees were uprooted and rocks were thrown up, blocking the road between Chichiguas and San Rafael del Norte.[2]

1864

In January 1864,[1] Antonio José Branco, who lived on a tributary of the Rio dos Cacharros 6 miles from Curitibanos, came home after an absence of eight days to find the nearby road completely undermined, huge heaps of earth thrown up, and a grooved track 10' wide and about half a mile long, terminating in a swamp. The tunneling had completely changed the course of a stream, and several pine trees had been knocked down. The track was still visible in 1877, and attracted hundreds of people.[2]

1868

In February 1868, during a journey to Concordia, Paulino Montenegro heard that of the "giant snake" in La Cuchilla, and, investigating with some friends, saw tracks which convinced him of the existence of "some large animal". The most recent of these was only three days old, and revealed that there had been two animals, and that one had crashed into an oak tree and then retreated. One had tunnelled into a pool, whilst the other had dug across stony ground, then gone into the same pool. From the imprints left in the mud Montenegro guessed that the animals had scales, and were about 40' long (though Heuvelmans notes that it is not possible to judge an animals length from a tunnel), 10' high, and 5' wide.[2]

1899

According to an 1899 newspaper report, an American soldier in Cuba wrote to his family claiming that a Cuban scout had told him about a scaly, 3' wide, hog-snouted burrowing animal which lived near watercourses in the jungly mountains in the east of the island. Given the lack of any other information about the minhocão in Cuba, Chad Arment regards this story as a newspaper concoction based on Müller's reports.[4]

Also in 1899, an Argentine government official named Florencio de Basaldúa recorded claims of an amphibious monser named "mio-ciao" living close to Santo Tomé, near the Uruguay River, close to the Brazilian border:[6]

...a great amphibian monster, whose lair was in a deep pool, close to his post. He believed it to be a hippopotamus, which the Brazilians living along the shore called mio-cao, because they had seen it swim in the river and graze on its shores, assuring that it was not Danta, Anta or Gran Bestia, common in that area. And was not similar to any other animal that lives in those regions...

circa 1900's to 1920's

Bernard Heuvelmans believed that Percy Fawcett may have been referring to the minhocão when he wrote[2] "they talk here of another river monster - fish or beaver - which can in a single night tear out a huge section of river bank. The Indians report the tracks of some gigantic animal in the swamps bordering the river, but allege that it has never been seen".[7] Roy P. Mackal thought that this was in reference to the giant river otter,[8] but if it does refer to the minhocão, it is the latest recorded report of the cryptid - at least forty years after the last reliable sighting - and suggests that stories regarding it were still current in the first years of the 20th Century.

Theories

Folklore

It has been thought that the minhocão is a fictional creature invented to explain otherwise-mysterious earthquake damage,[1] and Charles Darwin suggested that its appearance could have been inspired by discoveries of fossilised bones.[4] However, as Karl Shuker notes, this could not explain actual sightings of the animal,[5] and Chad Arment points out that the minhocão's disappearance and apparent extinction provides an obstacle for this theory, asking: "[if the minhocão is] purely imaginary and represent[s] improbable explanations for unusual natural occurrences, what now stands in for the Minhocão as an explanation? Why does it not continue to be used in an explanatory manner within the folklore of that region?".[4]

Lungfish

The South American lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa). Some authors have suggested that a giant version could explain the minhocão.

The first scientist to examine reports of the minhocão, Auguste de Saint Hilaire, theorised that it could be a giant species of Lepidosiren lungfish, a theory later repeated by the editors of Nature,[5] although this identity is no longer favoured by most cryptozoologists.[9]

Lepidosiren is an elongated animal resembling an eel or even a worm, and does indeed have a somewhat pig-like snout: Karl Shuker suggests that the "horns" of the minhocão could be explained by the lungfish's "slender, anteriorly-positioned pectoral fins".[5] Saint Hilaire wrote that the fins might have shrunk to such a small size as to allow them to be overlooked, as the fins of Lepidosiren are already notably small. The teeth of Lepidosiren are also, according to a contemporary of Saint Hilaire, "well fitted for seizing and tearing its prey; and to judge of them from their structure, and from the muscles of their jaw, they must move with considerable force", meaning that a giant lungfish could also explain the livestock being taken in rivers.[4] In addition, Lepidosiren, like some African lungfishes, cocoons intself during the dry season and buries itself in mud at the bottom of ponds or river beds to wait in suspended animation until the start of the rainy season. This is consistent with reports of the minhocão's trenches appearing after rains.[5]

Lepidosiren does not have any scales, but more primitive lungfish, including species from Australia, do, leading Shuker to write that the lack of scales does not write off a lungfish as a suspect. Shuker also does not agree with Saint-Hilaire that a giant lungfish could haul livestock down into the water, and suggests that this may simply be "an effect of turbulence or a type of localised vortex for which the minhocão is being wrongly held responsible".[5]

Caecilian

Shuker first proposed the theory that the minhocão may be an extremely large species of caecilian, a worm-like amphibian, and Heuvelmans eventually abandoned the glyptodont theory to support this theory, describing the minhocão as a possible "fossorial amphibian" in his updated checklist.[10][9]

Atretochoana eiselti, a species of large, rare caecilian originally known only from two preserved specimens discovered by Sir Graham Hales in the Amazon Rainforest in the late 1800s, but rediscovered in 2011 by engineers working on a dam project in Brazil.

Caecilians, the largest species (a little under 5') of which are found in South America, are segmented and serpentine, and superficially very similar to earthworms, but they have visible mouths and, at least in some species, "a pair of sensory tentacles on their head that resemble horns or ears when protruded," which, as Shuker notes, makes them resemble very closely Saint Hilaire's description of the minhocão. Although their skin feels smooth, caecilians are some of the only known amphibians to have scales, which in this case are embedded within their skin. In a giant form of caecilian, if these scales mirrored the body's external segmentation, the animal would appear to have armour similar to the ringed carapaces of armadillos.[5]

A caecilian would also provide a behavioural match, as most are fossorial, and some species of the South American genus Typhlonectes inhabit rivers and lakes. The terrestrial species are known to often emerge from their burrows after heavy rainstorms, and most caecilians are also predators with a habit of grabbing their prey from below. In all, an exceptionally large species of caecilian would conform to almost all of the minhocão's features.[5]

Glyptodont or pampathere

The minhocão depicted as a glyptodont by Philippe Coudray in Guide des Animaux Cachés (2009).

The theory that the minhocão could be a living glyptodont appears to have first been proposed by the editor of Müller's report published in Nature (1878),[11] and was later supported by Emil Budde,[1] and, originally, Bernard Heuvelmans.[2] In the English publication of Müller's report, after going over the lungfish theory, the editors cautiously suggested that, given that certain armadillos are subterranean, "may there not still exist a larger representative of the same or nearly allied genus, or, if the suggestion be not too bold, even a last descendant of the Glyptodonts?"[11]

Heuvelmans later supported this theory in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1955). Under the assumption that glyptodonts were burrowing animals, Heuvelmans noted that a glyptodont would, generally, provide a good physical match with the minhocão, with its bony armour and pig-like snout, and suggests that the moving "horns" reported of the minhocão were in fact pointed ears. The apparent absence of legs in eyewitness accounts of the minhocão would not be a problem, as it's legs might have been obscured in the mud. If glyptodonts were burrowers, their tunnels would cause severe subsidence and damage, as in Africa, even relatively small aardvarks are known to cause roads to collapse with their burrowing. In addition, modern armadillos, though not aquatic, are known to be good swimmers, crossing streams by running across the bottom, and crossing wider rivers by inflating their intestines with air, allowing them the float across even in spite of their armour. Heuvelmans suggested that a glyptodont with these adaptations could have taken to the water in order to better support its heavy body.[2]

The glyptodont theory was heavily criticised by Karl Shuker, who notes that it seems unlikely that anyone would compare a tank-like glyptodont to a giant worm, writing that "anything less serpentine than a glyptodont would be hard to imagine". Moreover, he pointed out that it seems unlikely for glyptodonts to have been burrowing animals. Their vertebrae were fused, their front limbs, despite showing some fossorial characteristics, seem to have been largely inflexible, and Shuker questions why such a well-armoured animal would need to burrow in the first place. Most fossorial animals are devoid of body armour, which would only impede their burrowing without giving any benefit, since burrowing animals are unlikely to be attacked by predators. The defenses of glyptodonts, on the other, suggest that they frequently confronted predators. Shuker also argues against the possibility that glyptodonts could have been aquatic, given their very heavy armour, and points out that the scutes of glyptodonts did not actually resemble armadillo scales.[5]

A glyptodont depicted swimming underwater in the BBC's Ice Age Giants.

However, Dale A. Drinnon argues against Shuker's criticism, noting that the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), despite also having a domed shell, is a burrowing animal.[12] Recent research has also suggested that glyptodonts, like the ground sloths, may indeed have been burrowing animals, perhaps to avoid the heat of the day, as they also appear to have had poor eyesight.[13][14][15] In addition, according to palaeontologists consulted for the BBC documentary Ice Age Giants, glyptodonts may have fed on aquatic plants and appear to have adaptations for an amphibious existence.[16]

In his 1986 checklist, Heuvelmans wrote that the minhocão could be a species of amphibious burrowing mammal,[17] but did not directly identify it with a glyptodont, and by the publication of his updated checklist, he instead suggested that it was a fossorial amphibian:[10] as noted by Karl Shuker, he had moved away from the glyptodont theory to support Shuker's caecilian theory.[9]

Reconstruction of the pampathere Holmesina floridanus by Nobu Tamura.

Given the objections to the glyptodont theory, a similar but alternative theory regarding the minhocão is that it may be a living pampathere. These giant armadillos resembled glyptodonts, and also had pig-like snouts, but were somewhat more elongate, and had banded plates - which, as Shuker notes, did resemble the scales of armadillos[5] - on their midsections, allowing them some degree of flexibility, so they may have bore more resemblance to the minhocão than a glyptodont.[1] Pampatheres are also now thought to have been burrowing animals.[14]

New World pangolin

As an alternative to the glyptodont and pampathere theories, Dave Francazio suggests that the minhocão could be a species of very large New World pangolin or pangolin relative, similar to the Eocene Metacheiromys. Although this animal is not known to have been scaled or armoured, Francazio suggests that it may have had pangolin-like scales which were not preserved. This theory is based on the facts that pangolins are more serpentine than both glyptodonts and pampatheres, and are known to be both burrowing and swimming animals.[18]

Similar cryptids

Heuvelmans suggested that the minhocão may sometimes have been confused with giant anacondas and the sucuriju gigante.[2] Arnošt Vašíček connects the minhocão with the sachamama, a shelled "snake" reported from Peru.[19]

In popular culture

  • The Minhocao is a Notorious Monster in the Sandworm family in the MMO Final Fantasy XI.
  • The Minhocao appears in two episodes of The Secret Saturdays, where it is depicted as the same animal as the French mythical monster Lou Carcolh, which is somewhat similar to the sachamama, which is lumped with the minhocão by some cryptozoologists.
  • The minhocão is included in the Zoo Tycoon 2 fan mod Paranoia!.
  • A paragraph about the minhocão were the first words that future cryptozoologist Karl Shuker read in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1955), the book which inspired him to become a cryptozoologist.[9]

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 Heuvelmans, Bernard (1955) On the Track of Unknown Animals, Routledge, ISBN 978-1138977525
  3. Coleman, Loren & Clark, Jerome (1999) Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0684856025
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Arment, Chad "Notes on the Minhocão," BioFortean Review: 2007 strangeark.com [Accessed 6 June 2019]
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Shuker, Karl P. N. (1995) In Search of Prehistoric Survivors: Do Giant 'Extinct' Creatures Still Exist?, Blandford, ISBN 9780713-724691
  6. Whittall, Austin Southern South American Manatees | Patagonian Monsters patagoniamonsters.blogspot.com [Accessed 12 June 2020]
  7. Fawcett, Brian & Fawcett, Percy (1953) Exploration Fawcett
  8. Mackal, Roy P. (1980) Searching for Hidden Animals: An Inquiry Into Zoological Mysteries, Cadogan Books, ISBN 978-0946313051
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Shuker, Karl P. N. ShukerNature: SEEKING MEGA-CAECILIANS karlshuker.blogspot.com [Accessed 6 June 2019]
  10. 10.0 10.1 Shuker, Karl P. N. "A Supplement to Dr Bernard Heuvelmans' Checklist of Cryptozoological Animals," Fortean Studies 5 (1998)
  11. 11.0 11.1 "A New Underground Monster," Nature 17 (1878)
  12. Drinnon, Dale A. (2009) "Amended Cryptozoological Checklist"
  13. Vizcaino, S. F. & Bender, R. E. & Milne, N. "Proportions and function of the limbs of glyptodonts," Lethaia 44 (2011)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Emerling, Christopher A. & Springer, Mark S. "Genomic evidence for rod monochromacy in sloths and armadillos suggests early subterranean history for Xenarthra," Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 282 (2015)
  15. Zacharias, James Discovering the Glyptodont moas.org [Accessed 6 June 2019]
  16. "Land of the Sabre-tooth". Ice Age Giants: Series 1, Episode 1
  17. Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
  18. Francazio, Dave CRYPTOZOOLOGY ONLINE: Still on the Track: DAVE FRANCAZIO: Demystifying the minhocao forteanzoology.blogspot.com [Accessed 23 September 2019]
  19. Vašíček, Arnošt (1996) Planeta záhad
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